School of Social Service Administration launches exchange program with Tata Institute in India

Students assess urban poverty and community needs at home and abroad

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

Social work students from India and the University of Chicago are using a new international exchange program to learn about each other’s cultures and how organizations in both countries confront poverty and economic disadvantages.

The first group of four Indian students visited Chicago this fall as part of the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences International Exchange Partnership, launched by SSA and the Tata Institute for Social Sciences at Mumbai. SSA sent eight students to Mumbai in 2010 and seven last summer.

During their month-long stay in India, students performed class and fieldwork in urban poverty and community organizing and development. “What we tried to do was provide them with a window on how urban poverty is generated and reproduced, as well as a look at life in neighborhoods — and the policy issues and on-the-ground practices being used to address the needs of the people,” said Robert Chaskin, associate professor in SSA and an organizer of the exchange.

“For TISS, this interface with SSA at the University of Chicago connects us to a university that has a long history of social work education, and a city with a history of community development and organization. It offers a glimpse of the challenges to the urban poor in the present social, economic and political context, as well as the policy context of community practice,” said Mouleshri Vyas, associate professor and chairperson of the Center for Community Organization and Development Practice in the School of Social Work at the Tata Institute.    

The course work in Mumbai looked at poverty and the global economy, community organizing and development practices, the role of nongovernmental organizations, social exclusion and labor, urban space and crime, and minorities and gender in development.

In Chicago, students from Mumbai participated in courses including urban development, policy formation and human rights. They also accompanied SSA students at work in their field placement agencies and visited local organizations working with the poor in several Chicago neighborhoods.

Students visited neighborhoods in both India and Chicago, and did community assessments of needs and resources available for people living in disadvantaged circumstances.

The exchange works well because of both similarities and differences between India and the United States, Chaskin said. Both are large democracies, with significant diversity and inequality, large nongovernmental sectors, and significant but quite different urban problems, he noted. Additionally, English is the language of instruction in both countries.

The program reflects growing academic interest from universities in developing a global perspective. “Many of our students are beginning to think critically about international social welfare, and some are interested in working internationally,” Chaskin said. The exchange helps students understand issues of immigration, and how social problems are connected across national borders, he said.

For students who do not become involved in the international aspect of social work, the experience of seeing social work in another setting provides an opportunity to rethink some of their assumptions, Chaskin said. “It opens up a new way of thinking for them,” he said.

For students taking part in the program, the experience was a real eye-opener. Students from India were surprised to see how much segregation and youth crime exists in Chicago. 

“What I noticed in Chicago is the inequality and marginalization of people who seemed to be excluded from opportunities,” said Reema Malek, a student from India taking part in the exchange. “There is so much clear-cut segregation, people seem to be secluded in specific places.”

Malek and others said they enjoyed the course work, which included readings that were relevant to the problems they were studying. Such research literature is not as common in India, the students said.

Students also said they were impressed with the attitudes of the social workers they met, and their desire to serve people. In India, the work of social workers is focused on helping people secure the human rights they deserve, such as access to housing, education and employment, the students said.

For SSA students, the experience of being in another country was equally revealing.

“I think what impressed me most about India was the generosity of the people,” said Christopher Jaffe, a student at SSA. “On my second day there, I had a bad cold, and the woman in the home I was visiting insisted that she make me ginger tea. She yelled out the front door to her neighbors, one brought the ginger, one brought the milk and another provided the tea. 

“This woman borrowed from several neighbors because she had almost nothing. The experience was humbling. This is how it works in the slums — if one family is hungry, the rest come together to help,” he continued.

“Visiting India has changed my perspective forever,” Jaffe said. “I learned about social inequality in the Indian context, and that the people aren't as different as I had imagined. The experience increased my desire to work for social justice.”

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